Years ago when I was a student in seminary, I observed some fellow students who had a burning desire to enter into a more personal relationship with their favorite professor. How they would have loved to have been invited over to his home for dinner or simply to have sat down with him for a cup of coffee. Perhaps just an arm around the shoulder and the question, “How’s it going?” Some experienced this; many others did not. It may not be realistic to hope for a close, mentoring relationship. It isn’t that it never happens, but it doesn’t happen as often or to as many as some might hope.
As I was preparing for this message, I was thinking about John the Baptist and his relationship with Jesus. John must have been a pretty lonesome fellow. He seemed to have lived in remote places and to have been restricted to his disciples for fellowship. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful for John to be able to sit down for a fireside chat with Jesus, to have Jesus put an arm around his shoulder and ask, “How’s the ministry going, John?”
It is difficult to fully grasp how little contact John actually had with Jesus. We know, of course, that the two “met” while both were in the womb (Luke 1:39-55), but that hardly counts. (Elizabeth got a kick out of it, though – pardon the pun.) Then there was the meeting when Jesus came for baptism (Matthew 3:13-17). But all in all, they had very little contact. Remember that John was arrested early in our Lord’s ministry, so any opportunity for contact after his arrest was eliminated.
John’s parents must have told him of his unique mission in life, as indicated to Zacharias by the angel of the Lord:
11 An angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense, appeared to him. 12 And Zechariah, visibly shaken when he saw the angel, was seized with fear. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son; you will name him John. 14 Joy and gladness will come to you, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go as forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him” (Luke 1:11-17).
John would thus have understood that he, in some way, was to fulfill the prophecies of Malachi concerning the forerunner to the Messiah (Malachi 3:1-3; 4:5-6). For some time, John spoke of the coming of Messiah without knowing for certain just who He was until His baptism:
30 “This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ 31 I did not recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he could be revealed to Israel.” 32 Then John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 33 And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining—this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have both seen and testified that this man is the Chosen One of God” (John 1:30-34).
The events that accompanied the baptism of Jesus settled it for John; Jesus was the Messiah. No doubt about it. And this John made very clear to those who came to hear him, even to his own disciples:
35 Again the next day John was standing there with two of his disciples. 36 Gazing at Jesus as he walked by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When John’s two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus (John 1:35-37).
Some time had passed since that unusual baptism, and now John found himself in prison. His stand against sin had certainly gotten Herod’s attention. So John was now limited to reports from his disciples as to what Jesus was teaching and doing. Frankly, this did not fit the “script” John had in his mind.
Jesus and John were very different, and these differences may have begun to bother John. John’s attire certainly set him apart from the crowd, but Jesus seems to have blended in so far as His clothing was concerned. John and his disciples fasted much (“neither eating nor drinking”), while Jesus and His disciples ate and drank, with sinners no less (Matthew 11:18-19). John performed no signs in his earthly ministry (John 10:41), but Jesus (and now His disciples) performed miracles of every kind (Matthew 9:35; 10:1). There John sat in prison. If Jesus was the Messiah, as John had announced, then why didn’t He do something? Why had Jesus not gotten to the business of establishing His kingdom?
When he could resist no longer, John sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus directly: “Was He the promised Messiah or not? Were the Jewish people to embrace Him as the Messiah, or should they look for someone else?” Is Jesus our only hope? That, my friends, is the most important question you will ever ask or answer. It is just as important to you today as it was to John and his disciples thousands of years ago. So let us listen to the words of Jesus to see what His answer will be.
When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their towns (Matthew 11:1).
Verse 1 links the events of chapter 10 to chapter 11. Jesus had just finished giving instructions to His disciples, instructions pertaining to their mission:
1 Jesus called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits so they could cast them out and heal every kind of disease and sickness. . . 5 Jesus sent out these twelve, instructing them as follows: “Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town. 6 Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near!’” (Matthew 10:1, 5-7)
The events of chapter 11 follow the sending of the twelve. What is interesting is that even though the disciples’ mission must have taken weeks, if not months, there is no account in any of the Gospels about exactly what happened as the disciples went about. Here are matters of great human interest, but not matters that any Gospel writer chose to record. Actually, our Lord’s words in this chapter sum up the response of the Jews to the ministry of our Lord and His disciples. Matthew wants us to “connect the dots” from chapter 10 to chapter 11, from the sending of the twelve to John the Baptist, his doubts, and the response of the Jews of Galilee to the gospel.
JOHN’S QUESTION AND JESUS’ ANSWER
2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds Christ had done, he sent his disciples to ask a question: 3 “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go tell John what you hear and see: 5 The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:2-6).
Let me begin by saying that John’s problem with Jesus was not one rooted in unbelief, but rather in his concern that Jesus was not fulfilling the Scriptures. I am confident that John’s doubts were those of a godly man, who believed in God and in His Word. His doubts were not a denial of God, or of His Word; indeed, his doubts were rooted in his belief in God’s Word. As we have already noted, John was aware of his role as the forerunner of Messiah in fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:3) and Malachi (3:1-3; 4:4-6; Matthew 11:10; Luke 1:11-17).
John was also familiar with other passages that spoke of the Messiah coming in power to subdue His enemies and establish His kingdom:
1 Why do the nations cause a commotion?
Why are the countries devising plots that will fail?
2 The kings of the earth form a united front;
the rulers collaborate against the Lord and his chosen king.
3 They say, “Let’s tear off the shackles they’ve put on us!
Let’s free ourselves from their ropes!”
4 The one enthroned in heaven laughs in disgust;
the sovereign Master taunts them.
5 Then he angrily speaks to them
and terrifies them in his rage.
6 He says, “I myself have installed my king
on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 The king says, “I will tell you what the Lord decreed.
He said to me: ‘You are my son!
This very day I have become your father!
8 You have only to ask me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance,
the ends of the earth as your personal property.
9 You will break them with an iron scepter;
you will smash them as if they were a potter’s jar.’”
10 So now, you kings, do what is wise!
You rulers of the earth, submit to correction!
11 Serve the Lord in fear! Repent in terror!
12 Give sincere homage! Otherwise he will be angry, and you will die because of your behavior, when his anger quickly ignites.
How happy are all who take shelter in him! (Psalm 2:1-12)
When John spoke of Messiah’s coming, he spoke of Him coming in power and in judgment of the wicked, just as a number of Old Testament prophecies described His coming:
11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12, emphasis mine).
John was a prophet, and as such, under inspiration, he spoke with divine authority. But as a prophet, he suffered from the same problem every Old Testament prophet experienced – he was not omniscient!
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who predicted the grace that would come to you searched and investigated carefully. 11 They probed into what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ and his subsequent glory. 12 They were shown that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things now announced to you through those who proclaimed the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things angels long to catch a glimpse of (1 Peter 1:10-12).
The Old Testament prophets (like every true prophet, Old Testament and New) were given a divinely-inspired piece of the prophetic scheme of events, a piece of the puzzle. They were not given a full and complete grasp of the entire prophetic picture – at least that they understood as such. And so, as Peter has indicated above, the prophets searched their own writings and others, in an attempt to grasp what it all meant. In the final analysis, they had to be content with the awareness that these prophecies would be fulfilled later, and thus they were serving others, like us, and like those who will be alive as these prophecies come to pass.
John the Baptist suffered from what I would call “the dispensational problem.” John was not, at that moment in time, able to distinguish between those prophecies which spoke of Messiah’s first coming and His second coming. The first coming was foretold in those prophecies which spoke of His rejection by men and His sacrificial death, by which He paid the penalty for our sins – prophecies such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 52:13—53:12. His second coming was described in prophecies such as Psalm 2 and Malachi 3:1-3. John struggled because Jesus did not fulfill those prophecies pertaining to Messiah’s second coming, and we can now understand why. His was a problem that only time would solve.
By the way, this is not the first time the “dispensational problem” has arisen among John’s disciples:
14 Then John’s disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples don’t fast?” 15 Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn while the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, because the patch will pull away from the garment and the tear will be worse. 17 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the skins burst and the wine is spilled out and the skins are destroyed. Instead they put new wine into new wineskins and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:14-17).
In chapter 9, Jesus actually addresses the “dispensational problem” indirectly, by using the analogy of putting new wine (the gospel, or the New Covenant) into old wineskins (the Old Covenant). They might understand the imagery, but they did not yet understand what it symbolized. This is because they were still on the far side of the cross, still in the old dispensation.
Our Lord’s answer to John is simple and straightforward:
4 Jesus answered them, “Go tell John what you hear and see: 5 The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:4-6).
Jesus told John’s disciples to tell him what they heard and saw. What did they hear? They must have heard, over and over, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17; 10:7; see also Mark 6:12), the very same words that they and John preached. They may have heard segments of the Sermon on the Mount. From our Lord’s own words, they must have heard the good news being proclaimed to the poor. Beyond what they heard, they had to have seen miracles of every kind – sight was given to the blind, the lame were made to walk, lepers were cleansed, the deaf heard, and the dead were raised. All of these things were signs that Jesus was the Messiah, signs foretold by John’s predecessors:
18 At that time the deaf will be able to hear words read from a scroll,
and the eyes of the blind will be able to see through deep darkness.
19 The downtrodden will again rejoice in the Lord;
the poor among mankind will take delight in the sovereign king of Israel (Isaiah 29:18-19).
4 Tell those who panic,
“Look, your God comes to avenge!
With divine retribution he comes to deliver you.”
5 Then blind eyes will open,
deaf ears will hear.
6 Then the lame will leap like a deer,
the mute tongue will shout for joy;
for water will flow in the desert,
streams in the wilderness (Isaiah 35:4-6).
1 The spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has chosen me.
He has commissioned me to encourage the poor,
to help the brokenhearted,
to decree the release of captives,
and the freeing of prisoners,
2 to announce the year when the Lord will show his favor,
the day when our God will seek vengeance,
to console all who mourn,
3 to strengthen those who mourn in Zion,
by giving them a turban, instead of ashes,
oil symbolizing joy, instead of mourning,
a garment symbolizing praise, instead of discouragement.
They will be called godly oaks,
trees planted by the Lord to reveal his splendor (Isaiah 61:1-3).
John was troubled because some prophecies concerning Messiah (those pertaining to His second coming) did not appear to be fulfilled in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus did not attempt to give John a full explanation. He simply turned John’s attention to His deeds and His teaching, reminding him that these did fulfill prophecies concerning the coming of Messiah – His first coming!
John’s doubts and Jesus’ response remind me of Job. Job’s experience of suffering did not seem to square with the explanations of his friends or even with Job’s understanding of how God works in men’s lives. For a while, Job had his “hands on his hips” so to speak, expecting God to give him an explanation. God did not explain the particulars (of the heavenly lesson being taught, of Satan’s involvement, etc.), He simply pointed out that He was God, the sovereign God. When Job pondered this, he shut his mouth. He had no more words of protest, only confession. God was God, and He could do as He pleased. Who was Job to think He could question His workings in this world, a world He had created? Knowing that God was God was enough for Job. So far as we know, he never knew God’s purposes for his suffering.
The things Jesus told John’s disciples to report to John were proof that Jesus was the Messiah John had promised, baptized, and introduced publicly. John had done something that virtually all of us do at one time or another. John had certain expectations of God, about how He works in the lives of men (that is, how he felt God ought to work in the lives of men). He challenged God in the light of his expectations. John had this matter upside-down. He should have recognized Jesus as Messiah, as God in human flesh. If Jesus was God, then John should change or revise his expectations of God, convinced that Jesus is God.
All of us are too much like John – when God fails to work in just the way we expect Him to work, we begin to question God. If our Lord really is God, then we should expect Him to work in ways that are very different from what we might expect:
7 The wicked need to abandon their lifestyle
and sinful people their plans.
They should return to the Lord,
and he will show mercy to them,
and to their God,
for he will freely forgive them.
8 “Indeed, my plans are not like your plans,
and my deeds are not like your deeds,
9 for just as the sky is higher than the earth,
so my deeds are superior to your deeds
and my plans superior to your plans.
10 The rain and snow fall from the sky and do not return,
but instead water the earth and make it produce and yield crops,
and provide seed for the planter and food for those who must eat.
11 In the same way, the promise that I make does not return to me,
having accomplished nothing.
No, it is realized as I desire and is fulfilled as I intend” (Isaiah 55:7-11).
Our Lord’s last words in verse 6 are an exhortation for John not to be offended (or to stumble) on account of Jesus. I believe that this exhortation is also rooted in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
13 You must recognize the authority of the Lord who leads armies.
He is the one you must respect;
he is the one you must fear.
14 He will become a sanctuary,
but a stone that makes a person trip,
and a rock that makes one stumble—
to the two houses of Israel.
He will become a trap and a snare to the residents of Jerusalem.
15 Many will stumble over the stone and the rock,
and will fall and be seriously injured, and be ensnared and captured” (Isaiah 8:13-15).
Let John not be among those who stumble over the Messiah.
JESUS’ COMMENTARY ON JOHN THE BAPTIST
7 While they were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? Look, those who wear fancy clothes are in the homes of kings! 9 What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, who is to come. 15 The one who has ears had better listen! (Matthew 11:7-15)
If John had some doubts about Jesus, Jesus had no doubts about John! The crowd must have overheard the question John’s disciples put to Jesus and our Lord’s response. As John’s disciples begin their trek to report back to John, Jesus uses this occasion to address the crowd concerning John the Baptist. Jesus first presses the crowd to acknowledge what He knew they were thinking – that John was a prophet (see Matthew 21:26). In effect, Jesus says this about John,
“What did you go way out into the wilderness to see? A wishy-washy fellow whose views change with the political winds? I don’t think so! Maybe you went all the way out into the wilderness to see what the new fashions in menswear would be? We all know it can’t be that. No, you all know that the one thing which drew you out into the wilderness to hear John was the strong conviction that he is a true prophet – a man who speaks for God, a man whose words are God’s words. John is a prophet, but he is not merely a prophet. In a very real sense, John is the prophet – the prophet everyone has been waiting for, the prophet whose appearance and ministry have been prophesied by other prophets. Malachi spoke of him when he wrote, ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ John is the forerunner of Messiah, whose unique privilege has been to proclaim His appearance and reveal His identity.”
Because of John’s unique role as the last of the Old Testament prophets, the prophet whose mission it was to introduce Messiah, no one born of woman (to that point in time) was greater than he. And yet, as towering a personality as John was when viewed from the landscape of the Old Testament, even the least in the kingdom of heaven was greater than John (Matthew 11:11).
To me, verses 12 and 13 are some of the most puzzling in all of Matthew. In verse 12, Jesus calls attention to the “violence” which seems to characterize the days of John the Baptist. Just what is this violence? I believe we find clues in the Book of Acts and also in the Gospels:
33 Now when they heard this, they became furious and wanted to execute them. 34 But a Pharisee whose name was Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the council and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35 Then he said to the council, “Men of Israel, pay close attention to what you are about to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and nothing came of it. 37After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census, and incited people to follow him in revolt. He too was killed, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in this case I say to you, stay away from these men and leave them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking originates with people, it will come to nothing, 39 but if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them, or you may even be found fighting against God” (Acts 5:33-39, emphasis mine).
50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and took hold of Jesus and arrested him. 51 But one of those with Jesus grabbed his sword, drew it out, and struck the high priest’s slave, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its place! For all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword. 53 Or do you think that I cannot call on my Father, and that he would send me more than twelve legions of angels right now? 54 How then would the scriptures that say it must happen this way be fulfilled?” (Matthew 26:50-54, emphasis mine)
35 Then Jesus said to them, “When I sent you out with no money bag, or traveler’s bag, or sandals, you didn’t lack anything, did you?” They replied, “Nothing.” 36 He said to them, “But now, the one who has a money bag must take it, and likewise a traveler’s bag too. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me is being fulfilled.” 38 So they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” Then he told them, “It is enough” (Luke 22:35-38, emphasis mine).
14 Now when the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus performed, they began to say to one another, “This is certainly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Then Jesus, because he knew they were going to come and seize him by force to make him king, withdrew again up the mountainside alone (John 6:14-15, emphasis mine).
John’s generation seems to be one in which messianic expectations had reached the boiling point. The events surrounding the births of both John and Jesus may have helped to fuel some of this eschatological enthusiasm. Then, too, the political situation in Israel at that time may have played a role. I am inclined to think that John’s prophecy may have also unwittingly contributed to the messianic fervor, leading in a number of instances to violence or the use of armed force. People failed to grasp our Lord’s teaching and ministry, so why not John’s as well? Even the disciples seemed ready and willing if it came to a show of arms (Luke 22:35-38).
Jesus’ comments in verse 12 about violence seem to be closely related to verse 13 (which begins with the word “for”): “ For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared” (Matthew 11:13, emphasis mine). I see a rather clear chronological scheme laid out here:
“All the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared” (verse 13)
“From the days of John the Baptist until now” (verse 12)
THE PAST JOHN’S GENERATION AFTER JOHN (NEW COVENANT)
ALL THE PROPHETS AND LAW UNTIL JOHN DAYS OF JOHN UNTIL NOW LEAST IN KINGDOM IS GREATER THAN JOHN
Here is the way I currently understand our text. John the Baptist has some doubts about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. This seems to be because He is not the “forceful” Messiah that John predicted, the One who would come powerfully in judgment on sinners. Jesus seems to be saying that a certain element of Israelites who tended toward violence was attracted to John, his ministry, and his message. Why would this be the case? For one thing, it would seem as though John were the only prophet in those days. Before that, there were a substantial number of Old Testament prophets who prophesied. The law, too, had its prophetic aspects. John’s ministry was the culmination and climax of all Old Testament prophecy. If we accept the concept of progressive revelation (which I do), then we must see that John’s prophecy was the fullest, most well-developed prophecy of all the Old Testament prophets. As Old Testament prophets go, it doesn’t get any better than John the Baptist.
I do not believe that Jesus is seeking to be critical of John or of his ministry. He is simply attempting to show that John’s doubts are, in part, a reflection of the spirit of the age – a time when men yearned for Messiah to come in power to cast off Roman rule, to punish the wicked, and to establish His kingdom. No wonder John had some doubts. Jesus did not seem to be playing out the script John and others had for Messiah in their minds.
I am reminded of a television commercial that ran a number of years ago. A couple of older women were in a fast food outlet and one of them looked under the bun and asked, “Where’s the beef?” I think John is looking at the ministry of Jesus and is asking, “Where’s the fire?”
John may have his doubts, but Jesus does not. In spite of John’s second thoughts, Jesus gives a full endorsement to John.
14 “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, who is to come. 15 The one who has ears had better listen!” (Matthew 11:14-15)
In the Gospel of John, we see that John himself denied that he was Elijah:
21 So they asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not!” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No!” (John 1:21)
How, then, can Jesus say that John is Elijah? First of all, notice that Jesus qualifies His statement by adding, “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah . . . .” Obviously, some won’t see it this way, and Jesus acknowledges the fact that only some will agree. The other statement in verse 15 underscores the qualification in verse 14:
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:15)
This is a statement that will be used later on in Matthew 13 (verses 9, 43) when Jesus begins to teach by parables. This is an exhortation for the reader to think more deeply than merely on the surface. It is not a challenge to think literally, but to think beyond what is literal – that is what parables are about. They are not meant for everyone to understand. Thus, Jesus’ words here are not a contradiction to John’s denial that he is literally Elijah. John is Elijah in a more symbolic sense.
I’ve been giving this matter some thought, and I would like to suggest some ways in which John the Baptist is Elijah, if we would receive it. John was Elijah-like in his appearance. This was hardly an accident. John purposed to take on this look. Both John and Elijah spent time living in more remote places, eating food that was different from typical folks. Both John and Elijah were “inferior” to their successors. John made it clear that Jesus was far greater than he (Matthew 3:11). Elisha had a two-fold portion of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2:7-14). Elijah was more a man of violence; Elisha was more a man of peace. Elijah had his doubts, when his spectacular confrontation on Mount Carmel seemed to fail. God took Elijah back to the same mountain where Moses received the law, and through a series of spectacular events, conveyed to Elijah that God was not obliged to work in spectacular ways, but sometimes through a “still, small, voice” (1 Kings 19:11-18). Elijah had the false perception that “he alone was left” (1 Kings 19:10, 14). Is this the way John also felt? Elijah hoped to bring about national revival, and it didn’t work. It was through others, whom he was to designate, that God would bring about significant changes in the nation (1 Kings 19:11-18). My point is that the similarities between John and Elijah are numerous, I believe. These two really were alike.
JESUS’ ASSESSMENT OF ISRAEL’S RESPONSE TO THE GOSPEL
16 “To what should I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to one another, 17 ‘We played the flute for you, yet you did not dance; we wailed in mourning, yet you did not weep.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” 20 Then Jesus began to criticize openly the cities in which he had done many of his miracles, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you! 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be thrown down to Hades! For if the miracles done among you had been done in Sodom, it would have continued to this day. 24 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you!” (Matthew 11:16-24)
Matthew is a very talented writer with a flare for surprises where we least expect them. Think of the way Matthew has crafted this Gospel to show the building excitement and the enthusiastic expectation that Messiah would soon appear. Matthew has documented Jesus’ boundless authority and His growing popularity (Matthew 9:33), granted, with growing opposition from the Pharisees (but their objections seem impotent at this point in time).
The disciples have been sent out two-by-two, and they have apparently returned. As I mentioned earlier, no Gospel actually records what happened when the twelve went out, performing miracles and proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven was near. The closest we come is a brief description of the response of the seventy-two when they returned from a similar mission:
17 Then the seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “ Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name!” 18 So he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Look, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and on the full force of the enemy, and nothing will hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names stand written in heaven.” 21 On that same occasion Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your gracious will. 22 All things have been given to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son decides to reveal him.” 23 Then Jesus turned to his disciples and said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Luke 10:17-24, emphasis mine).
Notice that the seventy-two give no account of the success of their mission. That is, they mention nothing about how many actually repented in response to their ministry. When they return to Jesus, all these disciples can talk about is how much power they had – even the demons had to submit to their authority! Jesus saw this as an indication of Satan’s final defeat, but He encouraged His disciples to rejoice in their salvation rather than in the power they had exercised. The words which follow are quite similar to those we find in Matthew 11 in our text.
Up until now, Matthew has given us reports as to how people responded to Jesus (Matthew 4:24-25; 7:28-29; 8:34; 9:1-17, 33-34). But here, for the first time, Matthew gives us our Lord’s assessment of men’s response to the gospel that John, He, and their disciples had proclaimed. It is not a good report; indeed it is a shocking assessment of how men have responded to the gospel.
In spite of the popularity of Jesus with the crowds, very little repentance is evident. Jesus sent His disciples out to proclaim the approaching arrival of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ message, along with His disciples, was virtually identical with that of John the Baptist and his disciples: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 10:7). Now, Jesus indicts those Israelite cities who had most frequently witnessed the presence, preaching, and miracle-working power of Jesus, and now of His disciples.
Jesus likened that generation to children who complained because He would not dance to their tune. They wanted a “have it your way” Messiah, and when Jesus refused to conform to their desires and expectations, they wanted nothing to do with Him. These were fickle folks.
Notice how our Lord continues the theme of His relationship to John the Baptist. The two of them were very different, but that generation rejected them both. John came to them fasting (“neither eating nor drinking” – compare Matthew 9:14), and they called him demon possessed. Then Jesus and His disciples came along, both eating and drinking, and they accused Him of being a glutton and a drunkard, and (worse yet!) One who associated with sinners. The link between John and Jesus was buttressed by the fact that this generation rejected them both.
Specifically, Jesus rebuked these cities of Israel where most of His miracles had been performed “because they did not repent” (Matthew 11:20). The purpose of John’s preaching and that of Jesus was to bring the nation of Israel to repentance. It was not to draw large crowds or to attract a huge following, but rather to call sinners to repentance. That had not happened, and thus our Lord’s stinging words of rebuke to those cities that had greatest contact with Jesus and who had seen the most miracles.
Jesus names specific cities. We know almost nothing about Chorazin. It is mentioned only here and in Luke 10:13. From what our Lord says here, it is apparent that this city saw a great deal of our Lord, and yet they did not repent. Bethsaida is a different story. Jesus may very well have been in or near Bethsaida as He spoke these words of rebuke (see Luke 9:10). We know from John 1:44 that Bethsaida was the hometown of Philip, Andrew, and Peter.
Jesus very clearly assumes that there are degrees of punishment in verses 20-24. Greater punishment is due those who have been given greater revelation, and then have rejected it. Less punishment goes to those who have acted with less revelation. This same principle is taught in Luke 12:
45 “But if that slave should say to himself, ‘My master is delayed in returning,’ and he begins to beat the other slaves, both men and women, and to eat, drink, and get drunk, 46 then the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not foresee, and will cut him in two, and assign him a place with the unfaithful. 47 That servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or do what his master asked will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know his master’s will and did things worthy of punishment will receive a light beating. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked” (Luke 12:45-48).
Thus, Chorazin and Bethsaida (two predominantly Jewish towns where Jesus did much of His ministry) will be subject to greater judgment when the Messiah returns than will Tyre and Sidon (verses 21-22). Tyre and Sidon get a fair amount of attention from the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah 23; Jeremiah 25:15-29, especially verse 22; Ezekiel 26-28; Amos 1:9-10; Zechariah 9:1-4). This was the home of the Canaanite woman who asked Jesus to cast the demon from her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). These were, by and large, Gentile towns seldom touched by the ministry or message of Messiah. And thus, they would receive less severe judgment when Messiah comes to judge the earth (Matthew 11:22).
Our Lord next draws the same contrast between Capernaum and Sodom in verses 23 and 24:
23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be thrown down to Hades! For if the miracles done among you had been done in Sodom, it would have continued to this day. 24 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you!” (Matthew 11:23-24)
Capernaum became our Lord’s Galilean headquarters for some time. Many of His miracles and a good part of His teaching were done there. No city had more exposure to Jesus, His preaching, and His infinite power than Capernaum. And yet the city did not repent. Because of this, Jesus indicated that it would be better for Sodom than for Capernaum on the day of judgment.
Why does Jesus ask the city of Capernaum if it expects to be exalted to heaven? What was it about Capernaum that led to this kind of arrogance? Two thoughts come to mind here. First, Capernaum may have taken great pride in being the headquarters of Jesus. The tourist business must have really been booming in Capernaum with all the people flocking there to get a glimpse of Jesus – better yet, to get healed by Jesus. We all know that the towns or cities that were the home of a president or famous person usually have a sign posted as you enter that town, reminding you of the town’s glory, due to its association with that great person. So it would seem Capernaum boasted in our Lord’s presence among them.
Second, the arrogance of Capernaum is reminiscent of the arrogance of Tyre, as described by Isaiah and Ezekiel:
8 Who planned this for royal Tyre, whose merchants are princes,
whose traders are the dignitaries of the earth?
9 The Lord who leads armies planned it— to dishonor the pride that comes from all her beauty,
to humiliate all the dignitaries of the earth (Isaiah 23:8-9; see Ezekiel 28:1-10).
In Ezekiel 28, the “prince of Tyre” in all his arrogance is likened to Satan (Ezekiel 28:11-19). It would seem to me, then, that our Lord is amplifying His rebuke of Capernaum by describing this city in a way that is reminiscent of the Old Testament description of Tyre and her king.
Our Lord’s words here in Matthew 11, combined with Matthew 12:38-42 and Luke 12:45-48, indicate that there are degrees of punishment for the wicked. In all cases, God judges men on the basis of what they do with what they know. In Romans 1, the heathen are condemned because they have rejected the revelation God has provided them in nature. In Romans 2, the Jews have a greater guilt because they have received the revelation of God in the law, and they rejected it.
THE GLORY AND AUTHORITY OF OUR LORD IN DIVINE ELECTION
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son decides to reveal him” (Matthew 11:25-27).
These words are strikingly similar to what we find in Luke 10:21-24:
21 On that same occasion Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your gracious will. 22 All things have been given to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son decides to reveal him.” 23 Then Jesus turned to his disciples and said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Luke 10:21-24).
In Luke 10, Jesus has sent out the seventy (or seventy-two), and they have just returned with a joyful account of how much power they had. Jesus puts this in perspective by instructing them to rejoice rather that their names have been written down in heaven (Luke 10:17-20). Now Jesus moves to what we would know as the doctrine of divine election. Jesus does something very similar in Matthew 11:25-27. A little thought will explain why Jesus emphasizes divine election.
Perhaps you remember Paul’s argument in Romans 9. The question is, “How do we explain the fact that while Jesus was a Jew and came to offer the kingdom to the Jews, very few Jews believed in Him, yet a number of Gentiles did?” Paul is emphatic in his insistence that this is not a failure on the part of God’s Word:
6 It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel, 7 nor are all the children Abraham’s true descendants; rather “through Isaac will your descendants be counted” (Romans 9:6-7).
Romans 9 is about divine election. In answer to the question, “Why have so many Jews rejected the gospel?” the answer is, “Because God did not choose them.” The fact that some men reject the gospel does not reflect badly on God, once one understands divine election. God chooses some, and not others, as a demonstration of His sovereignty.
I believe Matthew is employing the same kind of argument here in chapter 11. Outward appearances might lead some to conclude that Jesus’ ministry was a great success. He was well thought of, sought after by many, followed by awe-struck crowds. His disciples were sent out with His message and power, and they performed many wonders. What could be more successful than this? The problem is that popularity is not the same thing as repentance. These cities have not repented, in spite of the presence of Jesus and His disciples, in spite of the preaching of John, Jesus, and His disciples. Because these Jewish cities have not repented, we might wrongly conclude that Jesus’ mission was a failure – that Jesus had somehow failed to achieve what He was supposed to do. And if we reached this conclusion, we might not be that far from John the Baptist’s question.
Jesus’ words in verses 25–27 may come as a surprise. First of all, our Lord’s words are words of praise, praise to the Father. How could Jesus praise the Father for failing? He couldn’t. This was not a failure, then, but a success, for which God should and does receive the glory. Secondly, we see that there are those who have believed. The Father chose to conceal the things of the kingdom of heaven from those we would think are the most likely to grasp them – the wise and intelligent. Instead, the Father has revealed these things to little children, those we would consider least likely (or able) to understand them. Belief and unbelief, acceptance and rejection, are seen here as the result of the Father’s choice. God is sovereign in salvation. Jesus can praise God because those He intended to understand and to believe have understood and have believed. God’s plan has worked out, just as He purposed.
Verse 27 takes us even one step further. In verses 25 and 26, Jesus views salvation as the selective work of the Father. Jesus praises the Father for revealing the truth of the gospel to “babes” (little children), while concealing it from the wise and intelligent. This, Jesus says, was pleasing to the Father (verse 26). But in verse 27, Jesus goes even farther, for He now claims this sovereign right of choosing those who will believe for Himself. The Father has handed all things over to the Son. No one knows the Son (fully and completely), except the Father, and no one can know the Father except the Son and all those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him. This means that it is Jesus who determines men’s eternal destiny.
This is, I believe, the high point of Jesus’ authority thus far. Earlier, Jesus’ authority to interpret the Old Testament law was claimed and recognized (Matthew 5-7). Then, Jesus’ authority to heal, to cast out demons, to control nature, and to raise the dead was demonstrated (Matthew 8-9). Next, Jesus’ authority to call and to empower disciples is evidenced in chapter 10. In chapter 9, Jesus demonstrated His authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:1-8), but now Jesus extends this authority. Not only does Jesus have the authority to forgive sins, He has the authority to determine whose sins He will forgive.
AN OPEN INVITATION
28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Some have wrongly concluded that if God is the One who determines whom He will save and whom He will not, that man has no choice at all in the matter. I must call your attention to the fact that immediately after claiming the authority to determine who is saved and who is not, Jesus gives this invitation to salvation in verses 28-30. This is the clearest declaration of the gospel up to this point in Matthew. Earlier, the message has been relatively simple: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; see 10:7).
To some degree, I understand our Lord’s invitation at the end of chapter 11 in the light of the final verses of chapter 9:
36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were bewildered and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. 38 Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:36-38).
The nation Israel had its “shepherds,” if one dared to use the term so loosely. Their leaders were not characterized by compassion and mercy. In chapter 23, Matthew records some harsh indictments that our Lord makes against the scribes and Pharisees. Among them is this one:
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:1-4, emphasis mine).
In reality, the people of Israel were without the kind of Shepherd they most needed. Jesus was that Shepherd; He was the “Good Shepherd” (see John 10). Jesus did not exhort men to try harder at keeping the law and earning righteousness. He called on those who were weary of the burdens imposed on them by their wicked shepherds. Jesus did more than “lift a finger” to help those burdened down with religions; Jesus offered to bear their load completely. He offers to give those who are weary rest.
THE BEST OF ALL CONCLUSIONS:
AN INVITATION TO THE WEARY AND WORN OUT TO FIND REST IN JESUS
28 “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
This is an invitation:
Not to the powerful, but to the weak
Not to the arrogant, but to the humble
Not to the law-keepers, but to those who have come to see what the law was to teach—their sin.
Jesus has rebuked those who would force their way into the kingdom. They are the ones who have trusted in their powers, their works, and their wisdom. They are the ones who have refused to repent.
While the Pharisees placed added burdens on the backs of men and refused to help carry them (Matthew 23:4), Jesus bore the full weight of the law (He has fulfilled it – Matthew 5:17), and He now offers to bear its burden for all who will come to Him, in faith.
Who are the people to whom salvation is offered? Not those who try harder. Not those who look to the law as a way to keep rules and earn God’s favor. These are the people who have come to see the law for what it is. The law is a burden no man can bear. Remember Peter in Acts 15:10: “Shall we impose the law on the Gentiles?” The statement is made: “Why would we impose the law on the Gentiles when we couldn’t bear it ourselves?” Those who were burdened down are those who see that the law cannot save. They are the ones who recognize they are helpless and hopeless, and those are the ones He calls and says, “Come to me and find rest for your souls.” To me, these are the most beautiful words, so far, in this Gospel. They are an invitation to faith.
I must say one last thing. This came to me this morning when I was tying my shoes, and it’s the best thing I have to tell you. Do you remember a good while ago when I was teaching First Samuel, and I came to the conclusion that partial obedience was disobedience? Remember that? I’ve got another one for you. I’ve waited a long time for this: Following Jesus for the wrong reason is disobedience. These people still followed Him. That is what is so shocking about this. We see the disciples going out, we see the multitudes and the crowds, and we say, “Oh, wow, this is great.” The disciples say, “This is cool; the kingdom is nearly here.” And Jesus says, “It isn’t.” They’ve already rejected it. Why? Because they followed Jesus for the wrong reason. They followed Jesus (John 6, “Give us bread for evermore”) because Jesus is the meal ticket, Jesus is the One who will make us prosperous, Jesus is the One who will give us friends and a good self-image—follow Jesus, and He’ll give you these things. That’s the danger, my friend, of seeker-friendly religion. It calls upon people to follow Jesus for the wrong reasons. John’s preaching was not seeker friendly. Jesus’ preaching was not seeker friendly.
“Come to me sinners burdened with your sin, burdened with all the efforts to earn favor with Me. Trust in Me.” That’s how we can obtain God’s salvation. To follow Jesus for the wrong reason is the first step on the path to rebellion and denial and hell. And don’t kid yourself, my friend: we may think that we can get them on the path of faith in Jesus, and then at some later time we’ll give them the fine print, and we’ll straighten them out about the details. If you persuade people to “follow Jesus” for the wrong reason, then you’ve led them to the path of their own destruction. You must preach the gospel that Jesus gave. And that’s a gospel that we must preach in the midst of persecution, in opposition, and in the face of death—don’t change the message. Preach Jesus—the One who by grace, through His death on the cross, saves lost sinners. Preach Jesus, not as the One who will give them meals, not as the One who will make them happy and healthy, but as the One who will give them an eternal home by the forgiveness of their sins.